In praise of Zune Pass, your key to musical discovery

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What do you do when you find a band you might like? With the modern web, it's a simple matter to head online to their website, grab some YouTube videos, and find out a bit more. But music is such personal experience, so how can you have that intimacy with your smartphone? For many of us with Windows Phone, the answer is simple. Zune Pass.

There are other options, and for people who are coming from services like Spotify, which already have their playlists and and a social network, perhaps there's less of an impetus to move over to Microsoft's subscription service. But for people picking up a Windows Phone handset where the "all you can listen to" service is available (that would be in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, Canada, and Australia), Zune Pass is probably one of the unsung heroes of this smartphone platform.

Zune Pass

It's a simple proposition, you pay a monthly fee, and you have access to (almost) all of the Zune Music catalogue at no further cost. You can stream the tacks, download them to any Zune Pass-enabled device, organise them, sort them, transfer them between devices, and treat them as your own. Strictly speaking they are on loan, so after the period ends you are either billed again, or the DRM will kick in and you won't be able to listen to the WMA format files.

I've been on Zune Pass now since October, and I have to say I am loving it for a number of reasons. The first one is that it just works. I have the Zune PC client, which is where I do the majority of my downloading while I at home, allowing me to explore the music catalogue on the big screen, see the recommendations, and allows a bit of serendipity while looking for new music.

There's also a handy filter to show all my music, just the Zune Pass DRM music, or the DRM-Free content. This really helps me sort and filter my  music for other devices (such as copying music over to a Symbian smartphone, where the DRM files would not play).

 Windows Marketplace and Zune Pass Windows Marketplace and Zune Pass

Finding music is not a problem. There are some gaps, and these are either because I am looking for some very small indie bands that probably don't have a label or distribution deal in place - or a big name artist has made a decision to opt out of the download market and the only option is to purchase the DRM free tracks at the going rate. Every music site has issues like this, and while there is no one solution, at least the Zune store is clear in either not finding the artist, or showing that it is a purchase only option.

The ability to have the music play on a number of devices also works well. From the PC and Xbox options in the home, to mobile devices over the range of Windows Phone handsets, and the Zune HD standalone media player (yes it was me, I bought one), I can move between most of my tech and still have the music. Now of course that means I need to be using Microsoft tech to do that, but that of course is the strategy from Redmond going forward. I already have the laptop and the smartphone, and it's not a huge jump to think most Windows Phone users will have a similar set-up.

Those are all pretty practical items, but music is more about emotion, and this has been where Zune Pass, especially over the last week at the SXSW Music Conference, has become a wonderful tool. I'm seeing at least six or seven new bands every day, bands who have either been personally recommended, listened to one sample track online and liked them, or simply walked along Sixth Street and been led into a bar by a guitar riff.

And I'm finding that with about half these bands, I'm heading to the Windows Marketplace to grab their album during their set-list.

While you can still buy a full album from online stores, or perhaps the band's website (and let's not forget the merchandise stand at the end of the gig, which I will still visit immediately for an exceptional performance - which has happened twice so far in Austin), the ability to grab the album to listen to later, with just a few clicks and no worries about going over budget (six days, seven bands a day, that's over forty albums) will result in me listening to more music, and buying more music.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Bruce Springsteen at SXSW, as Zune Pass downloads the new album, 'Wrecking Ball'.

SXSW may not be over, so the full Zune Pass effect may take a month or so to go through, but over the last three months, countries across Europe have been choosing their tracks for the Eurovision Song Contest. Close to eight hundred performers get through to the final stages across the continent, and while only 42 will make it to Baku, I've discovered some great bands in the three months I've been following the build up - bands that would not normally be known to me.

The practical benefits of Zune Pass are easy to spot - you may well pick up Zune Pass for the mainstream albums and hits (and yet another copy of Hotel California from The Eagles), but once you start to explore and discover new music, Zune Pass opens up a world of musical treasures. That's why I love Zune Pass so much, it gives you permission to explore, the freedom to find something new and try it out in depth before deciding you have found your favourite new band.

There's a fourteen day trial available - if you've not tried it yet, I really think you should.